In the summer of 2003 I had the privilege of visiting Kermanshah and viewing the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. The inscription is important for many reasons, not least for being the key to the decipherment of the cuneiform script which was used for the Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite versions of the inscription. I always have my students in the introductory course to Ancient World History, as well as my Ancient Persia class read parts of the inscription
This is a magnificent work of governmental propaganda, covering up a coup d’etat by Darius who, regardless, should certainly be called “the Great.” Many revolted after Gaumata, who Darius says was the pretender to the throne was killed. These included Açina (Elamite); Nadintabaira (Babylonian); Martiya (Persian); Fravarti (Median); Ciçantaxma (Asgarite); Fravarti (Parthian); Frada (Margianian); Vahyazdata (Persian); Araxa (Armenian); Aamaita (Elamite); and Skunxa (Scythian). Darius himself states that he fought nineteen battles and captured nine kings.
After all, it was Darius who organized the Achaemenid Empire which was to last for two centuries. Furthermore, the inscription, as the great late historian Arnolodo Momigliano mentioned, is the earliest personal biography known in the ancient world. It may very well be that the Persians were interested in such matters. After all, the earliest textual biography written in the ancient world is about Cyrus the Great, i.e., Cyropaedia. Lastly, the inscription demonstrates the religious conviction of Darius and his devotion to his god, Ahuramazda, the “Wise Lord.” It is by the grace of Ahuramazda that Darius became king; it is Ahuramazda who bore him aid in defeating his enemies, and it is Ahuramazda who made him king.
As I got to climb the scaffolding which was in a decrepit state, I had a feeling of excitement. This was not because the head of the Behistun project had told me that if the scaffolding breaks and I die, it is not her responsibility, but rather, I was one of the few fortunate souls who were able to get close to Darius and his inscription. Some two centuries before (1835) Sir Henry Rawlinson, the man who made the important decipherment Old Persian script had flung himself from the mountain to copy the inscription and several times he almost fell and died.
I was very much aware of these matters and it ran through my mind as the wood beneath my feet cracked as I went up further. The relief is several hundred feet above the ground and so it was a chance of a lifetime to see the inscription and the relief.
I climbed up until I was , king of kings. My heart was beating evermore faster as I looked into his eyes, and saw the details of his beautifully curled beard, the earlobes and his golden crown. It was a magnificent work of art, but it was much more than that. It showed a confident king of kings, at ease and at peace in the face of a great revolt which shook his young empire.
Then there were the who were bound and brought before the king of kings. They were standing before Darius who was holding a bow, the symbol of authority and power in the Achaemenid world. We know what Darius did to them, as he says: “I did as I pleased with them”. But the most exciting moment of my life was when I TOUCHED GOD.
Before going further, I know that I am going to get a series of responses that the image is not that of Ahuramazda, but either Xwarrah “Royal Glory,” or Frawahar “Guardian Spirit.” There are competing theories and based on the Egyptian and Assyrian material but I agree with those who see the winged figure as Ahuramazda.
I am not religious, but this moment was as close to a religious experience that I have ever had. Just above Darius hovered Ahuramazda. You have to be there and be looking at both to understand what Darius’ devotion to Ahuramazda is, not in words, but in distance between the two on the relief. I had to spread myself sideways on the scaffolding and only then I was able to touch Ahuramazda.
My heart was not beating anymore, it had almost stopped and I kept touching God and in disbelief telling myself, am I really here. I kept closing and opening my eye just to be sure that I was there. I had met Ahuramazda in all his glory at the top of one of the most famous mountains of the Iranian Plateau which at the time of Darius the Great was probably known as baga-stana “place of gods” based on the Greek attestation of
It was then that I remembered parts of Yast 1, known as Ohrmazd Yast (I.12):
“I am Protector and Creator
I am Protector and Knower
And I am Spirit and Most Beneficent”
Dr. Touraj Daryaee is Professor of History of Ancient Persia at California State University, Fluerton.